THE BLOG
10/29/2014 11:33 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Strange Bedfellows

Say what you will about the limitations of traditional broadcast as a way to engage consumers -- it is slow, it is broad, it is expensive, it is a one-way dialogue that lacks the instantaneous real-time measurement potential afforded by digital's ever-expanding reach, speed and innovation.

You have to give it this, though: When brands and businesses go the traditional route, they can rest assured that they will not find their carefully crafted and highly refined message or corporate image plastered three inches from a rape GIF. Or the vilest racist hate speech you have ever seen. Or just the seemingly infinite sewer main break of trolled ugliness -- as angry, anonymized commenters seek to outdo, out-shock and out-antagonize each other in what has become a typifier of online interaction.

That's entertainment, I guess. For some at least.

But let me tell you what it isn't: Good business.

No matter how desensitized we all get to it, the emotional and mental associations that are forged when a brand is positioned alongside the increasingly toxic content and commentary that can be found on even the most mainstream of sites can be powerfully corrosive to brand equity. Not to mention extremely long lasting and dangerously subliminal.

As hatred of women seems to replace love of cats as the Internet's primary trope, brands and businesses that have raced to place engagement resources into primarily digital platforms can suddenly find themselves with deeply unpleasant, strange bedfellows. And exponentially more vulnerable and connected to an online culture that appears to grow more intolerant, hostile and offensive every day.

From doxxing (releasing of personal information, including home address and telephone numbers) to death threats and coordinated campaigns of bullying and harassment, it seems that any dissent or disagreement -- no matter how measured or mild -- can be met with nuclear levels of anonymous, shadowy malevolence. And all too frighteningly often, online harassment is but a precursor to real-world terrorization, violence and intimidation. A plurality of online voices are being stifled into silence, as the audiences to whom they speak deeply drift away in disgust and disappointment.

For brands, it couldn't be coming at a worse time. It is now a common and accepted imperative that brands must consistently reach, engage and connect with larger and more diverse audiences than ever before. Often, their very business viability depends on it. For many -- even most -- this speed and reach is the whole point of digital and social connectivity in the first place. It is why many organizations grit their teeth and forge ahead with resource allocation, even in light of studies that reveal as much as 82 percent of all online advertising is ignored.

But just how exactly are brands supposed to attract and grow a diversity of stakeholders when their primary platforms for reaching them are common outlets for misogyny, racism and homophobia?

The mass exodus from print and television to digital as a means of consumer engagement was swift and hive-mindedly lockstep -- driven by the anxieties of the financial crisis, the limitations and costs of traditional advertising, and a Pollyanna belief in digital magic. Many organizations neglected to ask some fairly basic questions, set some boundaries and demand some common sense accountability.

Questions like, does your content management system flag racial epithets and obscenities? Can it block IP addresses? Can it disable the uploading of offensive images and video? What are the policies towards hate speech, violent threats, harassment, bullying and stalking, and what does the platform do to enforce the policies? If messaging is being automatically distributed as targeted advertising, how can the brand be assured that they are not in fact financing pornography, harassing and libelous content, or piracy?

Nobody is calling for censorship, repression of dissent or speech, or some kind of arbitrary digital version of early Hollywood's Hays code. Brands and their managers have never been naive to the Faustian pact and premise that the medium is the message. But today's marketers must recognize that they are party -- not to mention part and parcel -- to the complicated and abundant issues and contradictions in social and digital media.

Brands can put their heads in the digital sand, and continue to strain the limits of plausible deniability. Or they can exercise their basic right to know where their ad spends are going -- and demand a modicum of alignment with their brand standards and ethics. Because in the tail-wags-dog model that so often finds brands unreasonably beholden to the platforms they fund, brands are paying the price not only with their actual budget allocations -- but with the far more valuable brand equity and associations they have spent the life of their company building.